Music Department Audit

Is your primary school’s Music department fit for purpose?Take my quiz, add your score and see how you do!  It is very ambitious.  Almost no school will get the gold unless they are an all-through school in both Primary and Secondary phases.

Bronze Award

Does your school have concerts and recitals annually? (5 points)

Does your school have a musical play annually? (5 points)

Does your school have a choir? (5 points)

Does your school have an instrumental ensemble? (5 points)

Does your school have instrumental tutors coming into school? (5 points)

Does your school have an annual music trip somewhere local? (5 points)

Does your school teach recorders or ukuleles as a whole class? (5 points)

Do children sing outside of music lessons in their classtime? (5 points)

Do you have a wide selection of untuned classroom percussion instruments? (5 points)

Do you have some tuned classroom percussion instruments? (5 points)

Do you have a Music scheme of work? (5 points)

Do you have a Music policy? (5 points)

If you have over 50 points, give your school the Bronze Award.
Silver Award

Do you have at least two concerts where ensembles (and some soloists) perform and monthly recitals where soloists play? (5 points)

Is each class performing a musical play or a concert? (5 points)

Does your choir perform in two parts and fully understand how to use their head and chest voices? (5 points)

Does your school have a variety of different instrumental ensembles? (5 points)

Is there a wide variety of different instruments being taught at your school? (5 points)

Has any of your ensembles played away from school on a trip somewhere locally or internationally? (5 points)

Does each class have opportunities to play recorders, violins, ukuleles, African drums, or keyboard together as a class or in small groups? (5 points)

Does your school collaborate with other schools or with your music hub? (5 points)

Do you have a good quality stock of untuned percussion instruments so each child can play an instrument together as a class? (5 points)

Do you have a set of bells and a bell ensemble? (5 points)

Do you have an inventory of every instrument and resource in the department? (5 points)

Do you record children playing to assess the quality of their work? (5 points)

Do you teach the children to read musical notation as they sing and play? (5 points)

Do you teach the children how to use music technology? (5 points)

If you have over 60 points, give your school the Silver Award.

Gold Award

Do you have a concert and recital program where every one or two weeks there are musical ensembles and soloists including outside performers and community groups? (5 points)

Are there musical theatre performance opportunities for every child in your school and does your school recruit members for local amateur dramatic and musical theatre companies? (5 points)

Do you have an auditioned chamber choir as well as a mass non-auditioned choir? Can they perform from standard notation, without notation, accompanied and unaccompanied? Have you attended any competitions with your choir? (5 points)

Do you have a range of different ensembles with differing standards? For example, a beginners string ensemble, a training string ensemble and an advanced string ensemble? (5 points)

Do your students take and pass graded instrumental and singing examinations with excellent results? Are you a registered exam centre of have continuous dealings with another locally? (5 points)

Have you made recordings with your ensembles? Do they attend musical competitions? Do any of your players play with local, national or international ensembles? (5 points)

Do you have a culture where music making is normal and wide-spread in your school? Does every child play? (5 points)

Is your school a leader for other schools in your local area? Have you put on a music conference at your school? (5 points)

Do you lend out instruments to children so they can practice at home? (5 points)

Do you have an Orff ensemble of bass, alto and soprano xylophones and metalophones? (5 points)

Are your music teachers having excellent quality training and training other teachers themselves? (5 points)

Do you have recordings of every child and how they have improved over time in your school? (5 points)

Do your children perform to the highest of standards for their age and ability?

Can all children read music fluently? (5 points)

Can your children compose music using a notation package? Can they use a sequencer? (5 points)

Does your school have an excellent reputation for music? (5 points)

If you have over 70 points, give your school the Gold Award.

Initial Instrument List

If I had to start a Primary Music department up from scratch with a very generous budget this is what I would get:

Piano, drums and guitars

  1. Electric Piano – essential for teaching
  2. Drum Kit – get a normal size kit, not a kiddy one
  3. Bass guitar – and a bass amp.  Not any amp, it must be a bass amp.
  4. Electric guitar – and an amp.
  5. Acoustic guitar – a nice one for teaching purposes, very useful if you have to teach in a normal classroom

Tuned percussion

  1. Bass xylophone – crazy expensive but if you are going to do Orff work you need it
  2. Two alto xylophones
  3. Four soprano xylophones
  4. One alto metalophone
  5. One soprano metalophone
  6. Four glockenspiels
  7. Four sets of diatonic rainbow handbells – for your Year 1 and 2 handbell club
  8. 1 set of diatonic boomwhackers – cheap and useful for ostinato work
  9. Selection of different types of tuned percussion beaters – get more than you think, don’t buy the cheap yellow plastic ones and find a nice big container to put them all in

Untuned percussion

  1. 30 sleigh bells – not the wrist ones, they are fiddly.  You need these for early years Christmas
  2. 6 half moon tambourines – essential, used all the time
  3. 6 two toned woodblocks – not just used for Little Donkey
  4. 6 triangles – with beaters, different sizes is fine
  5. 3 cymbals (good quality big ones) – the small ones just don’t make the right sound
  6. 15 pairs of plastic maracas (not the tiny ones) – wooden ones look nice but get damaged easily
  7. 30 egg shakers – these are cheap and simple for basic rhythm work and can be easily stored
  8. Chime tree – also known as a Mark tree – this gives a magical sound and is always used for shows.  Looks impressive too
  9. Agogo bell – you only need one, they are that loud
  10. 6 clickits – an unusual choice but these work very well in groups and are a good alternative to guiros.  I hate guiros
  11. 30 pairs of claves – just get cheap ones for simple rhythm work
  12. 6 wooden castanets – go for the animal ones, the normal ones are a nightmare for children to play well
  13. 6 pairs of sand blocks – for scraping sounds
  14. Vibraslap – you need this for sound effects
  15. Thunderer – for sound effects
  16. Rainstick – for sound effects


  1. 6 lollipop drums – these are brilliant and have their own lollipop beaters
  2. Bass drum – expensive but worth it for marching around to the beat.  You will need one with a stand
  3. Congas – again a bit expensive but if you have two drummers one can do kit while the other does congas.  Congas are not bongos, they are tall and you stand up to play them
  4. Djembe – just get one to start with but invest in these for the future when you want an African drumming group
  5. Samba kit – not essential but like djembes something to invest in for the future.  Only get this if you want to start a samba band club.  You will need a member of staff who really knows what they are doing here, it is quite specialized.

Other essentials

  1. 20 Music stands – for your orchestra.  Yes you will have one in time but this takes a while to build up.  Buy the stands now.
  2. Storage for your instruments – go for something accessible for the children so they learn to pack away themselves.  I organize the instruments into tuned percussion storage, untuned percussion storage and a bell table
  3. Subscription to SingUp – worth it as all colleagues can then do singing in class
  4. Guitar stands.  I like to hang the instruments on the wall rather than having an additional instrument on the floor annoying the cleaner who has come to vacuum the floor


  1. “Singing Sherlock” books 1 and 2 – this is basically all you need for beginner Choir
  2. “Flying a round” – for singing rounds
  3. “Okkitokkiunga” – for KS 1 singing
  4. Your show books – you have to do a show!
  5. Music Express 1-6 – I don’t actually recommend these but you need some sort of scheme if you don’t have a music specialist and this would do to start with

Other instruments that parents pay for

  1. Recorders – From Year 2 or 3, children should learn the recorder.  Parents should buy these as they should not be shared.  Just buy one for each child and then charge the parents £3.  Don’t let them buy their own from a shop, you need them all the same as they can actually be tuned differently.  And some parents get them from the Early Learning Centre – these aren’t proper instruments, they are just toys and make a dreadful sound.  Buy a dozen more recorders than you need as spares for new children who join the school and those who lose them and need to buy another
  2. Recorder books – get copies of “Recorder From The Beginning” by John Pitts.  Children need to be encouraged to practice at home so they should have a recorder book.  Photocopying bits of paper is a logistical nightmare and always a false economy.  The book is really cheap.  Buy 15 copies for school use and send a letter home saying if parents pay you can get them a copy for children to practice at home.
  3. Violins – its worth getting a class set of violins and then having a First Access group.  You can hire these from your local music hub (if you have one) but many schools like to have their own.  You will need replacement strings, resin and someone who can teach violin.
  4. Ukuleles – from Year 5 do ukes.  Just like recorders, encourage parents to buy their own.  Cheap ones are fine but have some replacement strings.  If you want to buy the instruments yourself think carefully about storage.
  5. Other orchestral instruments – again try to hire these and if you do buy some remember that if you buy the chepest then you will have a lot more costs in repair fees.  Repairing clarinets and trumpets is quite specialized and most general music teachers will not have this expertise as they get their own instruments fixed professionally

This is by no means an exhaustive list and it would be a very generous budget.  I have chosen these as apart from the electric piano, you can get them all in the MES (Music Education Supplies) order book.  This would give a great start to a Primary Music Department and as long as you have a great teacher or good music team, you should have enough to go along with for quite a few years.


I have been very lucky recently to watch an experienced colleague take a string orchestra rehearsal on a weekly basis.  She gets very high standards out of the students and obtains this in a patient, reflective manner, yet with scope for innovation.  What marks her out from most other people I have watched take rehearsals, is that she does not have her head in the score and is not actually that interested in conducting.  What she is after is the right sound, the right balance and giving ample time for perfecting short passages of music. 

Firstly, she knows exactly what each part is playing.  Many orchestral scores for school-age students are too complex and too dense.  When you arrange music you really only need three or four lines of music; the melody, the bass and the harmony.  The harmony is either one or two lines.  Because she knows exactly what everyone is playing, she is very good at communicating, not just the notes but the manner in which they are to be played.  She is not a native English speaker but is actually one of the best at communicating how music should be played.  There is the attention to detail – if bows are not moving in the same direction she will model exactly how they should be moving.  She will rehearse a section of music extensively with particular attention to articulation and tempo.  She will then go back a section and rehearse from a little further back.  In this way she builds the piece and gives people a “running jump” at the part where the focus has been directed at.  

Many people with an acute attention to detail are obsessed with the musical score and can rigidly only play what is written, but my colleague is actually very good at giving space for innovation.  She will rehearse one section and ask the cello player to play it two different ways before deciding what she wants.  She has experimented with electric instruments and drums and is unafraid to try and play something familiar a little differently.  This unpredictability keeps things fresh; we may be rehearsing only a small amount of pieces but no rehearsal is the same and there is always a focus and a clear objective.  

And finally there is the limitless expectation of crazy high standards.  Sometime teachers are afraid of high standards, thinking it is oppressive and too pushy.  But most people want to be part of something good.  Very few people are happy playing in something they know is a bit rubbish – we all want to feel we are part of something successful.  The students know this and success breeds success.  Being part of the string orchestra is an honor – and to stay in it means dedication, hard work and practice, practice, practice.  She will not hesitate to chuck you out if she thinks you are not putting the work in and the students are very aware of this.  So why do they want to put in the work, time and effort?

Because when you hear what they can play, you understand why it is worth every second spent in rehearsal.  The results are simply stunning.

Some thoughts on Assessment

Music teaching has been very strong when it comes to assessment.  The instrumental graded examinations are well established and well respected.  In fact, in David Blunkett’s period in office as Education secretary, he said that we should move general school assessment away from year group cohorts to a system of when you are ready, whatever age you are you pass a graded test.  But as we know full well, this is still a dream close to twenty years later.  Instrumental exams are very good at giving quality assessment for children regardless of age.  We can quibble about the cost, the preparation, the performance anxiety and stressful external examiners watching over anxious children trying to play music despite nerves and expectations, but in the end, children get good written feedback and a certificate worth something to them.  It even counts for UCAS points.  And in my case, it has got me jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without them!

But assessment in classes is a totally different kettle of fish.  This is where assessment in Music goes wrong.  Sometimes we have group assessment.  In my opinion this is close to worthless.  I have heard countless students recollect their experiences of group work in Music lessons where one person does all the work, or you end up with a rubbish grade because some lazy bugger messed it all up for all of you.  There are things we can learn from group assessment but it is not a good way to assess children individually as the actual grade given is often more to do with behaviour and attitude than ability.  We can do paired assessment but again, in Music the nature of sound means that it can be very difficult to assess who is doing what, especially if they play or sing in unison.  So we go back to individual assessment and we end up with the difficulty of hearing thirty students play individually in a class assessment lesson.  These lessons are normally my most unsuccessful because quite frankly the children get bored listening to each other play and as a result switch off, fiddle, gaze out the window or get up to some mischievous behavior when I am distracted trying to listen intently to a pupils performance.

Interestingly, the most successful lessons are the lessons after the assessments where the children are desperate to do it again but do it right.  It’s not just a case of trying to change their grade, they want to improve from the feedback they have been given.  The problem is we assess near the end of a module; what we need to be doing is assessing the first or second week in and then continuously refining our performances.  But that way we also run into boredom as who wants to keep on playing the same thing over and over again, week in and week out?  There are no easy answers.

And the main correlation I have found with assessment is the more you assess, the less you can teach.  There is certainly some truth to the expression “you can keep weighing the pig but it won’t get any fatter if you don’t feed it”.  We do not have the time in our weekly hour or so lessons for 36 weeks a year to mess around with colour-coded, meaningless grades that are demanded from hungry school management IT systems.  So my penny’s worth is basically, if we are going to assess we need to do it early and then reassess.  It needs to be low stakes and needs to be meaningful.  Sadly, in most schools around the world, class Music assessment is the complete opposite.  

Recorder Karate

In our school we are trailing a new recorder scheme called Recorder Karate.  The idea is that as you progress on the instrument you pass a selection of belts from white to black.  It has been very successful but there are some interesting side effects to the scheme.

To start with, the system of belts has worked like a dream, with children desperate to pass their assessment belts.  These are not abstract belts, they look like this:

They are multicolored hair bobbles that you can buy very cheap.

The children in Year 3 love to collect them and applaud one another when they pass each assessment. Because of this, it is the best scheme I have used as far as assessment and differentiation is concerned.  But if you spend a lot of time on assessment there are consequences and the main ones are less teaching time and loss of motivation when children listen to each other play.  If you have a class of thirty and hear everyone play, even if you give each child only one minute of time that comes to thirty minutes of the other children sitting around.  We could get them to self assess each other but quite frankly that often ends up in bullying afterwards in the playground.  The children are not old enough to fully understand what it means to objectively peer assess without becoming personal.  The other alternative is you listen to the children play in a breaktime but music teachers often have choirs and other groups at breaktime and just like any other teacher we should have some time off teaching and assessing for our own sanity!  Nonetheless, the scheme has worked well and for the first time I can hand on heart say that I know exactly the ability and progress of every child in the class, what their strengths are and what they need to do to get better.
Other things we need to get right are the difficulty of the belts; just because you add additional notes does not make the piece harder and the lower register is much harder than the higher register.  And we had a very pationate conversation about notation in our team.  In fact I am going to suggest a new law in Music Teaching where every conversation about music given enough time will end up with an argument about notation!  Basically some people think that the harder belts ought to only be achieved by children who can read the notation without the letters put above the notes.  I can see some value in this but I also think that we are creating barriers to playing at quite an early age.  Are we assessing a musical skill or a reading skill?  Some musicians would say the two are linked but I am not so sure.  

I will later post the actual pieces we are using for the scheme but first I want to finish it before publishing the content.  I still think that the recorder is highly undervalued and should be a compulsory part of every primary school and Recorder Karate is certainly a good way of achieving that aim.  


A traditionalist approach to education involves drills.  In Music Education these are simply a two to five minute whole class activity to practice rhythms, singing, performing, aural or written notation skills.  They are almost always teacher-led, although if they are known well enough, a child can lead the drill.  Every lesson should have some drills and they should get harder as the children get older.  The reason we do drills is because in most schools we only get a 50 minute Music lesson and it is the only time we get to practice the basic skills.  If we do not drill what often happens is that children forget the basics.  We then get into the situation that because we have taught the material we assume it is learned when it is not.  If learning is when children can recall knowledge and skills from long term memory and apply them, we need to do drill. 

In my lessons we spend up to twenty minutes doing drills.  The kids love them.  Here are some examples:

1) Rhythm Drill

I start this in Year 2.  We learn the basic rhythms as creepy crawlies.  So a semibreve is “snake”, a minim is “worm”, a crotchet is “fly”, quavers are “spider”, semiquavers are “caterpillar”.  We also have grasshopper, ladybug and rests.  I teach the rhythms with a new minibeast every two weeks.  We then perform about twelve different two-bar written rhythms which the children clap back in unison.  I do this every lesson for about sixteen weeks.  Then we write the rhythms on mini-whiteboards.  I say and clap the rhythm and the children “dictate” them by writing them in standard rhythmic notation.  They show me their slates and we praise and correct right and wrong answers.  We do this for about four weeks and then I will clap the rhythms but not say the minibeast names and they have to write them down by remembering the names from long term memory.  It is then good to leave this drill for a while before reintroducing it later on so the children have had time to forget and then relearn.  Interleaving practice is very powerful and results in stronger memories of the material when you learn it a second time.  The drills need to be revisited so that the content can be engrained in long term memory.  This will help our secondary colleagues who can then teach much more complex skills than basic rhythm for Year 7’s.  Sadly I have seen Year 9’s doing only simple crotchet and quaver rhythms because they simply do not know their names, durations or notations.  As students get older I teach them more complicated rhythms and the proper names for the notes.  I even teach the American and the British terms so they know that when a person talks about a quarter note or a crotchet they are referring to the same thing.  The rhythm drills take about three minutes to complete, about 100 minutes a school year.

2) Pitch Drill

We use the Kodaly system to start with in Year 1.  Unlike many Kodaly experts, I teach the notes in ascending order rather than sticking with “so me la” tunes.  I will do singing games using the natural “so me la” intervals but not for drill.  I put the notes and their Kodaly hand signs on the board and sing simple melodies using the notes.  The children repeat them.  This is again teacher directed but after many weeks I have allowed a child who has good pitching to “be the teacher”.  The drill remains the same. Like in the rhythm drill I will get the children to write down a series of pitches on white boards using the letters “d r m f s l t d”.  In Year 2 we continue Kodaly pitch but then I move on to using numbers 1 to  8 when we use handbells and C to C when we learn glockenspiels and xylophones.  I explain that they are the same things, just written in different ways.  Again, this drill will be repeated every lesson before stopping for a month or so and then reintroducing the drill.  I try not to combine Rhythm and Pitch drills until the children are older.

3) Performance Drill

When we learn any instrument we do performance drills.  I will play or sing a series of pitches or a rhythm and the children will repeat them.  It is a good warm up and revisits the basics.  I have also written performance drills using standard Western notation and graphic notation so the children can read and play simultaneously.  I will only make these one or two bars long and repeat them four times.  The first time the more aware kids get it right, the second time most the class gets it right, the third time the dreamers get it right and the fourth time even the weakest normally get it right.  It is useful to put on a steady beat on a keyboard or use a backing track so you can check the students are playing correctly.

4) Aural Drill

I play five notes on the piano ascending and then change the pitch of one of them the second time.  The children have to put up 1-5 fingers to say which one is different.  I will play three notes in no particular order for them to discriminate.  I sometimes make it longer and play up to ten notes for a challenge.  But there will always be aural drills because that is the key to good listening and aural awareness.

5) Instrument Drill

At the end of every lesson I play four sounds and the children have to identify the instrument.  If you keep this up every week and only change one or two or put them in different orders, by the end of Year 6 most children should be able to identify about fifty instruments from their sounds.  For older year groups I will combine two or even three sounds to discriminate between.

There are many, many other drills.  But the important thing is to be consistent and revisit continuously.  Any decent musician or sportsman will tell you that practice and discipline are paramount to excellence. That’s why we do drill.  It may seem obvious but I would not be writing about this if drill was happening in most primary schools.  It isn’t and that’s why we need to unashamedly promote it.  This is why I am not happy with the “Music Express” books in most primary schools.  There are some great activities but there is no drill.  That is why children can get to Year 6 and not know the difference between a violin and a cello, an A or a B or a crotchet and a minim.  Some teachers are scared of repeating activities in case the children get bored.  If this is what you think I would recommend you watch Children’s TV.  It’s all repetition with slight variants.  Kids learn through repetition; the key is to just slightly tweak it every lesson so they progress.  

Let’s reclaim the word “drill” as a positive, fun and engaging learning experience!

Ukulele v Guitar



I have now been teaching guitar to Year 5 for the past half term and I can give a bit of feedback as to how it is going and how it compares to the ukulele.

The negatives to start with.  First of all, the guitars have been a nightmare to store as we haven’t quite got the storage right in our school.  The carpenters will be building us a guitar storage rack over half term so this problem should be sorted relatively soon.  Secondly, the guitars have been a nightmare to tune as there are six strings and there are 28 students in each class.  I have started to only tune the first three as we have only been using them to play simple chords.  Thirdly, the majority of the children tried and failed to play the simple D chord as they found it way to difficult to put a three fingered chord shape on the guitar.  I tried to simplify the process to get D into three stages but that didn’t work either.  Perhaps if we plug at it every week we might make some progress.  I remember it took me about three weeks to perfect the D chord. Fourthly, there have been some difficulties with physical space as children are too close to one another and cannot hear themselves play.  There is not much we can do about that – the room is too small.

The positives.  Firstly, 95% of the children can play “Yellow Submarine” using simple chords C, G and G7 and sing at the same time.  There has been a definite improvement in attitude and attainment since we had “Yellow Submarine” as the assessment task – they seem to be taking it more seriously and the few students that were treating the guitar as a toy are now treating it as an instrument. Secondly, differentiation is easy in guitar lessons – the extension activity is to play full chords rather than the simple versions.

I still think ukulele would be better for Year 5 than guitar.  It would be easier to store and tune and it would be easier for children to take home and practice.  The chords are about the same difficulty but you get the satisfaction of playing all the strings rather than just three.  It would also take up less space so guitars won’t be bashing into one another and each child should be able to hear themselves play more clearly.  And they are easier for small hands to hold.

It’s a closer result than I thought it would be.  I would say it’s 2-1 to Uke United.

The Northern Lights



I wrote a song a few years ago to fit in with my Christmas musical “Polo’s Christmas”.  It is about the Northern Lights and is suitable for Key Stages 1 and 2.  There is nothing religious about the song and it can be used at any time.  I’ve enclosed the vocal track (thanks to Megan who sang this when she was 13), the backing track and the printed sheet music.


Slithering Snakes


I have created an original piece for our Developmental Orchestra.  It is designed so all our musicians can have a part that they can play.  The First Access students who are learning clarinet, violin, cello and trumpet all have a very simple piece using only a few notes so they can join the Orchestra.  The other parts are designed for those working around Grade 1-2.  The Audio is taken straight from the computer notation package Sibelius where I composed the music.

The scores can all be found in this pdf file:


If you would like to try this piece out you are very welcome.  There are another 9 pieces to follow in the coming months.

Three Singing Pigs


This is a continuation of my series of useful books for Primary schools.

Three Singing Pigs is a great book of stories by Kaye Umansky that are designed to be performed with instruments and singing.  They are aimed at Key Stage 1 pupils but some can be used in Key Stage 2.  I have used some of the stories as a one off lesson and used some as a performance piece for a whole term.

The best stories for music in my opinion are “The Awongalema Tree”, “Tiddalik”, “The Hairy Scary Castle”, “Treasure Island” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”. I have done all of these successfully with both Y1 and Y2.

This is a great book for those departments that sadly have few instruments but a random collection of odds and ends that make sound.  But it is also great if you have a wide selection of instruments – these stories work with whatever you have.

There is enough material for at least half the year and anyone teaching Key Stage 1 music ought to have them by their desk.  There are some others in the series “Three Tapping Teddies”, “Three Singing Pigs”, “Three Rapping Rats” and “Three Rocking Crocs” but this is probably the best of them.